‘Skeleton Key’ A Haunting Surprise; ‘Drew’ A Stalk On The Wild Side, By Kurt Loder

Hudson and Barrymore bravely take on two different kinds of horror.

“The Skeleton Key”: Swamp Things

Some mental images, like the thought of being buried alive, make our minds rear back in horror; they’re viscerally unsettling. “The Skeleton Key” is a movie built upon just such a shuddery idea. The concept doesn’t really start coming into focus until rather late in the film, but when its implications do become clear — especially at the end, in a single brief shot in the back of an ambulance — it definitely resonates, and it casts the picture’s preceding events into a ghastly new perspective. Up until then, the movie seems to be a by-the-numbers haunted-house exercise — just another steaming heap of summer junk. It’s mainly the skilled cast — including Peter Sarsgaard, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt and especially Kate Hudson, in an all-grown-up performance that suggests heartening new career possibilities — that keeps us strung along until the real dread starts drifting in.

The story is set in the hot, mucky, moss-hung bayou country outside of New Orleans. Caroline Ellis (Hudson), a young hospice worker transplanted from New Jersey, answers a newspaper ad seeking a live-in caretaker for an elderly invalid. His name is Ben Devereaux (Hurt), and he resides with his crotchety wife, Violet (Rowlands), in a grim, plantation-style mansion deep in the swamp. Ben has been incapacitated by a stroke, which has left him unable either to move or to speak. Violet at first finds Caroline unsuitable for the job of tending to him.

“She’s not from the South,” the old woman whispers to her young estate lawyer, a sleepy-eyed charmer named Luke (Sarsgaard). “She won’t understand the house.”

Violet relents, however, and Luke tells Caroline not to worry about her; she may be a little eccentric (she chain-smokes black cigarillos and keeps peacocks in the yard outside), but she’s basically okay. Caroline accepts the caretaker position, and Violet gives her an ornate skeleton key that she says opens the door to every room in the house.

Caroline soon discovers there’s one door, hidden away up in the dusty attic, which this key won’t open. Already spooked by the building’s weird, creaky ambience and its odd lack of mirrors, she confronts Violet for the full story. It seems that 80 years ago, the room belonged to two black servants, Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, who worked for the original owner of the house. Papa Justify was a hoodoo “conjure man,” and when the owner discovered him and Mama Cecile in their room with his two young children, sitting in a circle of guttering candles and arcane floor markings, he had the servants dragged outside and lynched, then set afire. This is an appalling spectacle that recalls any number of antique photographs of real racial atrocities in the post-Reconstruction South, and it’s disconcerting to realize later on that the feelings of pity and outrage we felt for these murdered servants were in fact hideously misplaced.

Caroline sets out to learn more about hoodoo, and is soon duly instructed that it’s a system of Southern black folk magic — related to but distinct from voodoo, which is a religion — that can be used both to cure and to control. Practitioners, or at least believers, obviously abound in this soggy precinct, which is thick with hoodoo tokens: lines of red brick dust poured across doorways, chicken bones dangling overhead like gristly wind chimes. Taking all of this in — along with the increasingly creepy portents in the Devereaux house — Caroline comes to suspect that if the paralyzed Ben were able to talk, he might have something really terrible to tell her.

The director, Iain Softley (“K-PAX”), distracts us from the slow-building significance of what we see with an array of hilariously hackneyed ghost-tale effects: rainy-night thunder and lightning, eyes peering eerily out of keyholes, sudden explosions of nerve-shredding music. Could this be an intentional strategy to lull the audience with familiar clichés before bringing on the real horror? If it is, it’s a miscalculation — at times, the movie threatens to topple over into complete, hoot-inducing nonsense. But the cleverly fashioned screenplay (by Ehren Kruger, who also scripted “The Ring”), delivers a payoff that’s decidedly different from what might normally be expected — a rare thing in the horror genre these days. And Kate Hudson, cut loose for a change from the fluff-bunny roles to which she’s been confined for the past few years, is convincing as a girl too tough-minded to believe in all this guff, but in the end too smart not to. “The Skeleton Key” doesn’t seem to promise much going in — and for a while it doesn’t deliver much, either. But its eerie premise lingers disturbingly in your mind. It may not qualify as a true ghost story, but it’s still pretty haunting.

“My Date with Drew”: Crazy in Love

Three years ago, Brian Herzlinger was a shlubby, 27-year-old East Coast film-school grad who had relocated to Los Angeles to be near the big-time movie biz but was failing totally to become in any way a part of it. He was broke and unemployed and yet — for reasons that offer no reward to close inquiry — strangely optimistic. When he suddenly won $1100 as a contestant on a TV game show, he decided to use the money to make his own movie — a documentary about his near-lifelong obsession with Drew Barrymore, and his determination to score a “date” with her.

Enabling him in this venture were two film-school classmates who had also made the trek west, Brett Winn and Jon Gunn. Starting from square one, they realized that the first thing they would need to make Herzlinger’s film would be a camera. Fortuitously, they found they could pick up a nifty digital-video model from Circuit City, which was advertising a no-questions-asked 30-day return policy. This would give them a month to make their movie with just enough time to take the camera back as unsatisfactory and retrieve their money. Someday, Circuit City will have to answer for this to the gods of documentary art.

The result of Herzlinger’s contrived quest is “My Date with Drew,” a labor of something remotely like love, I suppose. As is the case with all movie stars, Drew Barrymore proves very hard to contact. Poking around among their acquaintances, the three filmmakers obtain the name of a limo driver they hope might know something, but he’s not a lot of help. They secure an audience with Barrymore’s first cousin, but she turns out never actually to have met her celebrated relative. They pay a visit to the premises of Drew’s “facialist” (where we get to watch Herzlinger have blackheads extracted from his mug). They arrange a meeting with the remarkably smarmy Eric Roberts, who apparently has enough free time to play along with this sort of thing. (Roberts tells Herzlinger he’s a pudding of a man, and needs to get buff — then rolls up his sleeve, offering his own baseball-size muscle as an aesthetic ideal.) They also suck in longtime punchline Corey Feldman — a guy with even more free time on his hands than Roberts, it would seem — and solicit his advice, which proves to be useful mainly for purposes of puffing up the film with even the most dubious sort of celebrity presence.

Throughout all of this, the person we learn the most about, never-endingly, is Brian Herzlinger. He exults in the camera’s solicitous, unquestioning gaze, yammering away non-stop about his various inadequacies (too much body hair, too little cool) and wielding them like a verbal bludgeon to disarm anyone who might find this quasi-stalker enterprise to be less than completely adorable. The man is a militant nebbish. We see him pawing through his fanboy collection of movie memorabilia, still lovingly stored in his boyhood bedroom. (It of course includes a vintage certificate of membership in the Drew Barrymore fan club.) We see him staging a mock date in a restaurant with an actress he feels resembles Barrymore somewhat (well, at least as much as Corey Feldman does), and quipping to the waiter, “Merlot — that’s the red one, right?” We see him calling his ex-girlfriend and asking, “What was your first impression of me?” Remarkably, it wasn’t anything like ours.

In the end, after Herzlinger starts a Web site to publicize his date-with-Drew campaign, Barrymore herself finally gets wind of the project and, God bless her, finds it kind of charming. A quick lunch is arranged by her intermediaries in the garden of a Manhattan restaurant, and when the actress arrives (announcing to Herzlinger that she’s honored to be “a part of your journey”), her sweet, zesty presence gooses the film to life — at least for the 10 minutes or so that she’s actually in it. On the way out she tells Hertzlinger, “I’m very proud of you, even though I don’t know you very well.” And then she’s gone. And that’s it.

Brian Herzlinger may be a likeable guy to his buddies, but there’s way too much of him here. And while many film-festival viewers have reportedly found “My Date with Drew” to be irresistibly amusing, it’s hard to fathom the appeal of watching a grown man’s pathetic infatuation with a famous person he’s never met, and has no hope of ever getting to know, so relentlessly demonstrated. At one point in the picture, someone actually says of the whole undertaking, “The dumbing-down of America is complete.” It would be nice if that were true. Let’s at least hope it doesn’t get too much dumber than this.

—Kurt Loder

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Skeleton Key” and “My Date with Drew.”

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